Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ambivalence, Thy Name is Edward Snowden

News photo manipulated in PhotoFunia.
As whistle-blower extraordinaire Edward Snowden pleads for asylum in Russia until such time as he can make his way to some sympathetic Latin American country, I confess I'm awash in mixed feelings about this whole affair.  As the news media goes crazy over Snowden's revelations regarding National Security Agency surveillance of ordinary citizens' communications habits, and his machinations to prevent capture and return to the United States, comparisons to the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg abound, mostly negatively.

Because Snowden chose to make his revelations from the relative safety of a Hong Kong hotel room, and, unlike Ellsberg, has done everything in his power to avoid being apprehended by American authorities, he has also been castigated as a coward and a turncoat.  But as Ellsberg himself points out, in his July 7th op-ed, published in the Washington Post and supporting Snowden's choice to leave the country, the "turncoat" accusations were also hurled at him back in '71.  Didn't he know we were in a war, people muttered?  No matter what his intentions, revealing classified information during wartime -- even undeclared wartime -- was tantamount to high treason.  Which of course was Ellsberg's point. The classified documents that Ellsberg disseminated (or tried to disseminate) first to the NY Times, then to the Washington Post (before a judge issued injunctions preventing both papers from publishing the documents), revealed that the Pentagon and White House were "cooking the books" regarding our progress and effectiveness in the war, to make it appear as if our efforts were more successful than they actually were.

The truth about the Vietnam War, we know now, is that, by 1971, we were losing, and losing badly.  Already an unpopular war, America had grown weary of losing it's young men to a war it no longer understood and no longer wanted.  But Nixon, in an effort to beat back the growling bear of Communism, couldn't let the war go, couldn't let "the Commies" (one of his favorite words) win.  So he encouraged his generals to manipulate the numbers of our casualties, of their casualties, of the cost of the war itself, and of the results of our efforts.  When Ellsberg was finally able to get the Papers published, his revelation not only shed light on the chicanery of the war, but also set into motion events that toppled an entire Administration.  By the time the Ellsberg trial began, Watergate had begun and was gaining momentum like a freight train.  Charges against Ellsberg were dismissed, and the media and Washington had much bigger fish to fry. 

But Daniel Ellsberg wasn't operating under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, in post-Patriot Act America.  We have chosen, with the passage of the Act, to be a certain type of people.  We are people who are willing to sacrifice our hard-won rights in order to feel a little safer from faceless, nameless, amorphous "terrorists".  We are people who will call ourselves "Christians", but then send our "enemies" off to other countries to be tortured under the guidelines of extraordinary rendition.  We are the people who reacted to an attack on our soil by taking the lowest road possible.

Edward Snowden, for all his dramatchka and over-wrought hyperbole, brought to light the results of our craven cowardice from the early 2000s.  So many people I know personally, people I admire and respect, actually told me that in order to further our security, it was necessary to sacrifice some of our freedom, some of our privacy.  In order to prevent another attack, they were willing to hand their government any power, any permission, so they could sleep a little better at night.  Of course, at the time, they weren't really aware of what that would mean.  Even the most intelligent people, I now know, lack real imagination, and this is their weakness.  Edward Snowden has pulled the curtain back on the result of their willingness to hand over their lives to Daddy Bush and Grampa Cheney.  The NSA surveillance is a direct result of American willingness to hand their Constitutionally protected liberties back to law enforcement agency for the sake of feeling cared for.

It's not like America wasn't warned.  Those of us who opposed "anti-terrorists efforts" that chipped away at our rights to things like privacy and due process were shouted down by unremitting scaredy-cats who were afraid that Muslims were going to jump out of their closets and kill them.  In our pleas to get America to stop and think about the consequences of things like a "Department of Homeland Security" (and, let me just say again what I said then, anytime you add the word "Homeland" to anything governmental, you've totally jumped your own shark right there), the Patriot Act (likewise, the word "Patriot"), and Guantanamo Bay, we pointed out that to allow these shenanigans was to permit things like, oh, say, warrantless wiretaps, unauthorized, uncontrolled seizure of information.  In an age where information is king, this could turn intrusive.

And here we are.

On the one hand, I think Edward Snowden is a rather unlikely, undesirable hero.  Prone to exaggeration and self-aggrandizement, he made himself the center of attention in smirking interviews with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Then, realizing what he had stepped in, he went on the run, skulking around Asia and heading up to Russia, where he is reportedly holed up, The Terminal-style, somewhere in the international airport's transit zone, trying to figure out how to apply for asylum and get to some tropical beach in South America.

On the other hand, Edward Snowden has come to embody the reality of what America wrought with its willingness to hand back long-held protections against the government's prying eyes.  He has shined a spotlight on what, exactly, a Department of Homeland Security and a Patriot Act can do without so much as a by-your-leave.  As members of Congress (like, mine, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA) scramble to defend the NSA's actions ("It's called protecting America"),  the unraveling of secrecy around the NSA's actions has awakened ordinary Americans.  But I have to grudgingly admit, Feinstein is right.  It is called protecting America.  Certainly it is in 2013.

And this is, as Ellsberg points out, why it is almost as important that Snowden not let himself be apprehended as it was for Ellsberg to allow himself to be apprehended all those years ago.  Ellsberg was trying to blow the lid off an America that was ensnared in a war it no longer wanted and didn't think it needed, so staying on American soil and facing the possibility of over one hundred years in prison (if convicted) was essential to his goal.  Snowden is trying to blow the lid of the ugly underbelly of another America -- the "new" America -- the one we made after September 11, 2001.  That America is a dangerous place that knows no laws or boundaries, that feels justified in suspending any right, any procedure, as a means to an end.  This is what Snowden's revelations have revealed. And staying out of the way of that big, dark monster that has become our "anti-terrorist" machine is essential to - if not Snowden's ultimate goal -- than to those of us who wish the majority of America to see what it has created out of fear and cowardice.

This just may be the point where we can turn this sorry sow's ear into a lovely silk purse.  Perhaps treating Americans as criminals is not the best way to "protect America", as Feinstein puts it.  Maybe there are better ways to spend our resources that will preserve Americans' right to privacy.  Maybe protecting rights of privacy and due process that currently exist are ways, in and of themselves, to protect America and everything it stands for.

And if Snowden hadn't come along with his hubris and craving for attention, we might not even have asked the question.  Snowden may not be the knight in shining revelatory armor I would have chosen, but he's the one we got.


1 comment:

  1. Dear John Marson (who uses Robert Pattinson's photo as his own): I momentarily published your comments until I realized you were using my blog to publicize your mindless propaganda. Let's get one thing straight here. If anyone's going to publish mindless propaganda on this blog, it's going to be me. Get your own blog!

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